Since 1990 at least eighteen violent conflicts have been fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources. In fact, recent research suggests that over the last sixty years at least forty percent of all intrastate conflicts have a link to natural resources. Civil wars such as those in Liberia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo have centred on “high-value” resources like timber, diamonds, gold, minerals and oil. Other conflicts, including those in Darfur and the Middle East, have involved control of scarce resources such as fertile land and water.
As the global population continues to rise, and the demand for resources continues to grow, there is significant potential for conflicts over natural resources to intensify in the coming decades. In addition, the potential consequences of climate change for water availability, food security, prevalence of disease, coastal boundaries, and population distribution may aggravate existing tensions and generate new conflicts.
Environmental factors are rarely, if ever, the sole cause of violent conflict. Ethnicity, adverse economic conditions, low levels of international trade and conflict in neighbouring countries are all significant drivers of violence. However, the exploitation of natural resources and related environmental stresses can be implicated in all phases of the conflict cycle, from contributing to the outbreak and perpetuation of violence to undermining prospects for peace. In addition, the environment can itself fall victim to conflict, as direct and indirect environmental damage, coupled with the collapse of institutions, can lead to environmental risks that threaten people’s health, livelihoods and security.
Because the way that natural resources and the environment are governed has a determining influence on peace and security, these issues can also contribute to a relapse into conflict if they are not properly managed in post-conflict situations. Indeed, preliminary findings from a retrospective analysis of intrastate conflicts over the past sixty years indicate that conflicts associated with natural resources are twice as likely to relapse into conflict in the first five years. Nevertheless, fewer than a quarter of peace negotiations aiming to resolve conflicts linked to natural resources have addressed resource management mechanisms.
The recognition that environmental issues can contribute to violent conflict underscores their potential significance as pathways for cooperation, transformation and the consolidation of peace in war-torn societies. Natural resources and the environment can contribute to peacebuilding through economic development and the generation of employment, while cooperation over the management of shared natural resources provides new opportunities for peacebuilding. These factors, however, must be taken into consideration from the outset. Indeed, deferred action or poor choices made early on are easily “locked in,” establishing unsustainable trajectories of recovery that can undermine the fragile foundations of peace.
Integrating environment and natural resources into peacebuilding is no longer an option – it is a security imperative. The establishment of the UN Peacebuilding Commission provides an important chance to address environmental risks and capitalize on potential opportunities in a more consistent and coherent way.
In this context, UNEP recommends that the UN Peacebuilding Commission and the wider international community consider the following key recommendations for integrating environment and natural resource issues into peacebuilding interventions and conflict prevention:
1. Further develop UN capacities for early warning and early action: The UN system needs to strengthen its capacity to deliver early warning and early action in countries that are vulnerable to conflicts over natural resources and environmental issues. At the same time, the effective governance of natural resources and the environment should be viewed as an investment in conflict prevention.
2. Improve oversight and protection of natural resources during conflicts: The international community needs to increase oversight of “high-value” resources in international trade in order to minimize the potential for these resources to finance conflict. International sanctions should be the primary instrument dedicated to stopping the trade in conflict resources and the UN should require Member States to act against sanctions violators. At the same time, new legal instruments are required to protect natural resources and environmental services during violent conflict.
3. Address natural resources and the environment as part of the peacemaking and peacekeeping process: During peace mediation processes, wealth-sharing is one of the fundamental issues that can “make or break” a peace agreement. In most cases, this includes the sharing of natural resources, including minerals, timber, land and water. It is therefore critical that parties to a peace mediation process are given sufficient technical information and training to make informed decisions on the sustainable use of natural resources. Subsequent peacekeeping operations need to be aligned with national efforts to improve natural resource and environmental governance.
4. Include natural resources and environmental issues into integrated peacebuilding strategies: The UN often undertakes post-conflict operations with little or no prior knowledge of what natural resources exist in the affected country, or of what role they may have played in fuelling conflict. In many cases it is years into an intervention before the management of natural resources receives sufficient attention. A failure to respond to the environmental and natural resource needs of the population can complicate the task of fostering peace and even contribute to conflict relapse.
5. Carefully harness natural resources for economic recovery: Natural resources can only help strengthen the post-war economy and contribute to economic recovery if they are managed well. The international community should be prepared to help national authorities manage the extraction process and revenues in ways that do not increase risk of further conflict, or are unsustainable in the longer term. This must go hand in hand with ensuring accountability, transparency, and environmental sustainability in their management.
6. Capitalize on the potential for environmental cooperation to contribute to peacebuilding: Every state needs to use and protect vital natural resources such as forests, water, fertile land, energy and biodiversity. Environmental issues can thus serve as an effective platform or catalyst for enhancing dialogue, building confidence, exploiting shared interests and broadening cooperation between divided groups, as well as between states.
Case study 8: Gaza and the West Bank
Access to sufficient clean water is an issue of vital importance in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and across the region. On a per capita basis, the Middle East is the world’s most water-scarce region. Indeed, the Middle East and Northern Africa house five percent of the world’s population, but only one percent of its accessible freshwater resources.56 Under such circumstances, state-of-the-art technology and careful management are essential to guarantee that this rare resource can be put to maximum use.
One of the consequences of the ongoing conflict affecting the OPT is the erosion of the institutional capacity of the Palestinian Authority to manage key natural resources efficiently and provide basic services such as water and sanitation. Following the withdrawal of foreign aid to the Palestinian government after the election of Hamas in January 2006, roads, power plants and waterworks across the 140 square-mile Gaza strip deteriorated rapidly from lack of management and maintenance. The declining state of the sewage infrastructure was tragically highlighted in March 2007, when the earthen wall of a sewage pond in the northern Gaza Strip ruptured, flooding a nearby village and killing four Palestinians. The ponds and adjacent treatment plant were designed to serve 50,000 people in the Beit Lahiya area, but the region’s population had grown to 190,000.57
The management and planning situation has been further exacerbated by the split between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank, as well as the periodic border closures by the Israeli government.
In addition to the problems related to wastewater treatment, good management of water resources in the region must take water extraction, transport and consumption into consideration. A 2003 UNEP study estimated that 35-50 percent of the water was being lost between the well and the tap, due to the poor condition of waterworks in Gaza and the West Bank.58
The study also found that groundwater (the primary source of water in Gaza and the West Bank) was in many places threatened by pollution. Sources of pollution varied from sewage problems to pesticides and illegal dumpsites. Among the recommendations of the study was the strengthening of Palestinian water management authorities, policy-making bodies on water issues, and water planning.59
On the other hand, the clear need for collaboration over groundwater presents an important opportunity to bring the Palestinian and Israeli authorities together for dialogue, technical cooperation, or even co-management.